14 Things I Wish I Knew About Lavender Farming

When it comes to lavender farming, there are a few things that I wish I had known from the start. One of the challenges is that trade organizations often fall short in providing comprehensive information. Lavender farmers, understandably, are not always willing to share their knowledge or trade secrets and give away their hard-earned knowledge.

Another aspect that surprised me is the fact that most lavender farmers are self-taught. There is no formal education or degree specifically dedicated to lavender farming, so it becomes a learning curve for those who venture into this field.

Furthermore, I have discovered that there are numerous lavender processing methods available. From distillation to drying techniques, each farmer may have their own unique approach. This variety allows for experimentation and finding what works best for your specific circumstances.

While there may be some challenges and limited information available in the realm of lavender farming, it is an industry filled with passionate individuals who have honed their skills through trial and error. Embracing the learning curve and exploring different processing methods can lead to success in this aromatic endeavor. This may be the reason why each lavender farm is so unique from layout, growing, harvesting and processing methods to the product lineup.

Licenses

Depending on the many angles you want to take your farm, there are so many licenses to obtain. You are super limited with your product lineup by the licenses you hold. You may also not be allowed into premier farmer markets without these licenses. It is completely overwhelming to figure out what you need a license to sell when getting started as a lavender farmer. The following list is just the common licenses necessary for a lavender farm, it is by no means a comprehensive list:

Business & Sales Tax Licenses: This is a must for operating your business legally in your state

Nursery License: In our state, Michigan, you must hold a nursery license to sell perennial plants. Lavender is a perennial so it was a license that we found necessary since we wanted to sell lavender plants.

Food Licenses: We would also need a licensed kitchen and other related food licenses if we would want to sell foods outside of our state’s cottage law. We do want to do this but we do not find it economically feasible to do so!

Alcohol: We would REALLY love to sell our lavender extract for baking but we would need a licensed kitchen and a special alcohol license.

Insurance

The amount of insurance you need to run an agritourism business and sell processed products is insane! Lucky enough if you grow slow, (as we did,) we were able to navigate everything easy enough! This would have been completely overwhelming if we tried to tackle everything at once!

Property Insurance is necessary to cover your heavy equipment and outbuildings in case of unexpected events like fire, damage, weather and theft.

Liability Insurance is required to do farmer’s markets. It’s not just for farmer’s markets but you really want to cover your six in the unfortunate event that your product seriously injures someone. My product liability insurance isn’t the only liability insurance we have, we also have liability insurance to teach yoga.

An Agritourism Insurance rider is a must when a farm is opened to the public. This is in case someone would get injured on your property. We found that not all homeowners insurance policies have this type of rider and had to switch to a different insurance company.

Trade Groups and Facebook Groups

And we thought REALTORS were catty! If you step out of mainstream thought with anything slightly innovative, you will get humiliated to no end by the people who have “done it forever!”

In my true “be the change that you wish to see in the world” (Gandhi) fashion, I started my own “Lavender Lovers and Growers” facebook group that does not tolerate bullying or negativity that hinders innovation in the lavender world. We invite anyone from the backyard gardener to the large scale lavender farmer to ask questions and contribute to constructive discussions about growing, harvesting and processing lavender.

Marketing

We were mistaken when we thought “if you build it they will come!” We have to market ourselves so lavender lovers will find us. We have been attending farmers and artisan markets since 2019 and maintain social media + a website! It is just as difficult (if not more) than marketing a home inspection company or being a REALTOR.

Patented Lavender Plants

Quite a few lavender plants are patented so you can only buy them from retailers that have the rights to sell them AND you cannot propagate them for your own use! There is definitely a learning curve to researching whether a plant is patented or not.

Lavender vs Lavandin

I enrolled in a level 2 aromatherapy class when we decided to build a lavender farm. In the beginning stages of planning our farm, we wanted to specialize in lavender oil and found out that “Grosso” produces the highest amount of oil. Through the aromatherapy class, I found out that Grosso is a lavandin and is high in camphor.

Lavender and Lavandin have completely different constituents. Lavandin is high in camphor and is risky for children, seizure prone and pregnant individuals to use. Lavandin ALSO may produce the opposite results of lavender as a natural stimulant, where lavender is well known as naturally calming.

We did break down and buy about 200 lavandin plants in 2021 (to make it 20% of our farm) because that’s what people want to see when they visit a lavender farm. They don’t want to see the puny English lavender – they want to see the lavandin! Lavandin is our junk crop. We only sell it as fresh cut flowers, we do not process it. (See the insurance section and liabilty!) We ended up creating a demonstration field aka “The Lily Field” to house our 3 varieties of lavandin + 17 varieties of lavender and to help educate our lavender loving farm guests the difference between lavender and lavandin.

Lavandin is Sterile

Lavandin (Lavandula x intermedia) is a cross between Lavandula angustifolia (linalool rich English Lavender) and Lavandula latifolia (camphorous Spike Lavender or Portuguese Lavender.) Lavandin, unlike its counterparts, is sterile. This means lavandin does not produce seeds and it is impossible to grow lavandin from seed. Lavandin can only be propagated by cloning.

Over 45 Species and 400 Varieties of Lavender

With so many species and varieties of lavender, it was very difficult to choose what would work best on our farm. A LOT of research must happen before a plant gets put into the ground. The criteria we take into account for choosing lavender, in order: if it will survive in our climate, production, value and color. Yes, color is important since we want our farm, not just aesthetically pleasing, but we would like it to be an educational lavender farm destination.

Distillation Techniques: It’s Not Just About Essential Oil

Artisan Distilled Lavender Hydrosol

Once upon a time when we were planning our lavender farm, we were going to plant big oil producer, Grosso (lavandin,) and only steam distill essential oil and we were going to make a gazillion dollars and then sell our farm and live happily ever after on a house on a hill looking over Lake Michigan. The end.

aHAHAHHA we laugh at that now! It turns out that lavandin oil is a junk oil that many lavandin farmers have a difficult time selling. Some even deceptively package their lavandin oil as “lavender” oil. Some knowingly and purposely to offload their low priced oil and get high lavender oil prices. Some innocent enough not knowing the difference. However crazy the journey may be, that I enrolled in that aromatherapy class, to “accidentally” learn the difference.

So with knowledge obtained through the aromatherapy class, we decided to go all in with the gold standard of lavender in the aromatherapy (and culinary) world: Lavandula angustifolia or English Lavender.

English Lavender is notorious for being SUPER STINGY with its oil output. OK so what do we do now since our crop is not large enough to distill English Lavender for oil? Again, here is where this aromatherapy class assists us with the journey: HYDROSOL. Hydrosol is the co-product of essential oil production. Hydrosol espouses the same properties of the corresponding oil AND it is safer to use than essential oil.

DING DING DING DING! Now to figure out how to make the highest quality hydrosol.

We researched online, read books and we went absolutely insane trying to figure it out. We decided against the sexy copper alembic still with a column. The same type of still you find at all other lavender farms to produce essential oil. This is a process called “steam distillation.” We decided on “hydrodistillation” for our processing method. The rig we ended up with is definitely less sexy, in fact it’s ugly and disappointing to farm guests, and we had to do some modifications to make it work. We also feel that our hydrosol, which is only distilled for hydrosol, is high quality because of all of our research and the fact that it is the only product because we do not extract essential oil. In other words, our hydrosol is only distilled for hydrosol and is not a coproduct or byproduct when steam distilling for essential oil extraction. I have written another blog post that goes in depth to learn the difference between hydrodistillation vs steam distillation.

Growing Lavender from Seed

Culinary Lavender Plants for Sale

Here is another area where trade groups and lavender farming facebook groups fail you: growing lavender from seed. It’s impossible, the seed does not grow “true to type,” you need to cold stratify the seeds. We have found from a lot of trial and error, none of this is true.

It is not impossible or difficult to grow lavender from seed. It’s just different germinating lavender from seed than germinating most other seeds. It’s rather easy to grow lavender from seed once you “crack the code.”

Cold stratification is also unnecessary. We also found our germination rate was much lower when we applied the cold stratification method. We skip it now. Also many new varieties of English Lavender are bred to be grown from seed and you definitely don’t want to play the cold stratification game with those varieties.

Just the “impossible to grow from seed” adage from the ole farmers set in their ways challenged me. We wanted an entire farm (minus the lavandin) to be grown from seed. I would say we have succeeded and this pushes us to the next myth which is “you cannot grow lavender from seed “true to type.” You can. All of my varieties are true to type. My Munstead is Munstead, Vera is Vera, Hidcote Blue is Hidcote Blue and so on and so forth with the rest of the varieties that we have successfully grown from seed.

This makes us very different. Subtract our lavandin and our one patented English lavender row (Violet Intrigue) and we may be the only seed grown lavender farm in the US!

The Auger!

OH the auger was a game changer! We had planted about 300 plants with a shovel up until Paul said, “hey we have an auger for the drill, let’s see if this works!” Boom, it moved our sandy soil like cutting butter and created the holes we needed to plant the baby plants! Now, minus field prep work, we can toss about 100 plants in the ground in about an hour.

Zoning

Oops, I am better than this, especially after being a real estate agent/broker for almost 2 decades. I ASSumed that since we were on 8 acres we were zoned agricultural. We are zoned residential. The property across the street from us is zoned agricultural.

UGH! We had to navigate through quite a bit to allow farm guests and to sell farm products on our farm.

We found that we had three legal avenues to pursue: Special Use Permit from our township, get our property rezoned or be approved for certain on farm activities through Michigan’s Right to Farm.

We chose Right to Farm and opened our farm to the public in 2022.

Product Formulation

Product formulation is another learning curve that involves literal blood, sweat, tears and lye burns. Online formulations in blog posts are (excuse my language) complete crap. You have to take mini courses from credible sources to learn how to properly formulate products. Once you have a cohesive product, you need to test, tweak, test, tweak until it is just right! The happiness, sunshine, unicorns, rainbows and lavender comes when you have repeat customers who let you know how much they love your creation.

We decided to formulate all of our products from scratch. The reason why is because we do not produce essential oil, we have no choice! We cannot use pre-made lotion bases or melt and pour soap bases and call it “our own lavender” soap, lotion or whatever without at least adding our own oil. Our lavender hydrosol (for water based products) and lavender infused soft oils (for oil based products) are used to provide the natural scent in each of our products. We cannot add these to pre-made bases.

Summer Fun is Limited

Personal summer fun in magical west Michigan is limited. We are spending long (12-15 hour) days tending to, harvesting and processing the lavender. Product creation. Market prep. Market attendance. Open farm. Fulfilling online orders.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s way more fun than being a real estate broker or running a home inspection company. There is less grief and the stress is “different.” We are blessed and wouldn’t have it any other way. We have come a long way, but still have quite the distance before we can retire to “the house on the hill overlooking Lake Michigan.”